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BOE addressing language barrier
with families


By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

  Have you ever sat in a parent-teacher conference and thought that you and your child’s teacher weren’t speaking the same language?

  For several hundred parents of students in the Henry County School System, that is a real issue.

  With the district’s Hispanic population climbing to 7.8 percent last year and another 2 percent being Asian students, that means a large chunk of the county’s 40,000-plus public school students are likely to live with parents who speak little or no English, even if the student is fluent.

  After several years of dealing extensively with translation services and other resources to fill the gap, the school system has created a new position that will serve as liaison with the non-English-speaking parents in the community and also get a better handle on what translation resources already exist within the county to help administrators communicate better with families.

  The family language access facilitator will speak Spanish as well as English, but there are plenty of instances in which other languages come into play, from Hindi to Mandarin to Farsi to French Creole, according to April Brown, director of administrative services.

  For the 2013-2014 school year, 48.3 percent of the student population was black and 36.9 percent was white. The Hispanic total grew from 7.2 to 7.8 percent from just one year earlier, bringing that group alone near the 3,000 mark systemwide.

  In most situations the students, even those in the ESOL program, speak English well enough to communicate with teachers and administrators at school and function in general as students. But many of them come from households where that is not the case with Mom and Dad, Brown pointed out.

  “We have native speakers throughout the county (school system) but they were hired for other positions and just happen to speak another language,” said Brown. “We have had to use translation services to some degree for legal issues and for enrollment.”

  When a student has an issue, the school system is required by law to take the necessary steps to ensure that the parents understand what is happening – and they cannot depend upon the student to translate because he or she may not tell Mom and Dad the whole story, Brown said.

  The issue is now an everyday occurrence, especially where Spanish in concerned, and school officials realized that the time has come for a full-time employee who can be tasked specifically with handling these matters.

  The family language access facilitator will also be a liaison with the community in areas that have a higher concentration of Spanish-speaking residents. “He or she can advocate for those families while also making sure that we are giving adequate services to them,” said Brown.

  Questions have been raised in recent years by U.S. Justice Department civil rights officials regarding whether those services have been up to par, and while the county school system has not been found negligent in any of those cases, it has helped convince officials that the time is now to step up these services while making better use of district funds through the creation of an in-house facilitator.

  After some time getting familiar with the district, the new hire will be able to quickly identify who among the employees at the county’s 50 public schools can assist with issues that must be handled in German or whatever other language is needed. Of course, there will be times when a language comes up that no one in the school system speaks, and an occasional need for outside translation services will still exist.

  A few schools in the county have hired parapros or other positions specifically because of Spanish-speaking ability, but that is not the case in the majority of the schools. The problem is more noticeable in elementary and middle schools because every high school at least has teachers who teach Spanish classes.

  School officials hope to confirm a new hire for this position by the July meeting of the Board of Education, especially because the need for translation is particularly high during the enrollment and registration process just before the school year starts, Brown said.



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